RICH BOOK, CHEAP MOVIE
Reading some copy about the movie version of Dominique Lapierre’s The City of Joy, the feature writers describe the book as “sentimental.” It’s no such thing. Though immersed in poverty, Lapierre’s chronicles don’t cheapen or distort or romanticize the living conditions of Anand Nagar. Wish I could say the movie doesn’t: director Roland Joffé and screenwriter Mark Medoff have degraded the book in every way, and at their worst they have taken the good American Doctor Max—played by Patrick Swayze—and turned him into the pretensions of the “art” of dramatic writing right out of Lajos Egri’s college text. They make Max diametrically the opposite of how Lapierre sees him in order to create conflicts rarely or never encountered, make him inexplicably suicidal, and give him a hackneyed resolution. The next worse things they’ve done: eliminate entirely the priest—it’s now Pauline Collins as Sister (Saint) Joan—and feature a super vicious slum Mafiosi, played by Art Malik. Those of us who love the book can see it as Steadicam cinéma vérité, ready for an honest director, respectful story editor and cast. There are more scenes of struggle, heartbreak, spiritual wonderment and impossible-to-believe-but-true vignettes in the book than a moviemaker could ever hope to use—for example, the doctor amputating without anesthesia a leprous arm and watching “a mangy dog carrying it off in its mouth.” Why did Joffé and Medoff have to go dreaming up unnecessary situations? In the book Miamian Max Loeb, who’s about to get his medical degree from Tulane, has read all about a selfless priest in Calcutta and decides, because he needs “a change of air, to be of service,” to voluntarily join him. In the first scenes of the movie, he’s Max Lowe—changed to a supposedly less Jewish-sounding name because the movie was being filmed during the Gulf War and there were constant anti-American and anti-Israeli protests. This Max is already an established Houston doctor who abruptly abandons his profession because he lost a child-patient on the operating table. In the book Max, on his first day in the slums, helps deliver a breeched baby to a leper couple. For the movie, Max checks into a seedy hotel, entertains a prostie and is set up to get drunk, beaten and robbed by local terrorizer Malik. Afterwards movie Max sort of stumbles onto the slums. At first glance the faked Anand Nagar (the City of Joy), photographed approximating the color of diluted urine, appears wretched and diseased, and when we see the blackened open trench that snakes its way through the district, we expect to get a dose of biological reality. As we get into the book, we also wait for Lapierre to account for the disposal methods, since there are few bathrooms as Westerners acknowledge the meaning. He doesn’t disappoint: as horrific and appearing-to-be lacking of dignity as it all might seem, it’s quite the reverse, a queer sense of an admirable fatalism occurs within the reader when the Polish priest says, “Before reaching the public conveniences, I had to cross a veritable lake of excrement. This additional trial was a courtesy of the cesspool emptiers, who had been on strike for five months. The stench was so foul that I no longer knew which was the more unbearable: the smell or the sight. That people could actually remain good-humored in the middle of so much abjection seemed quite sublime to me. They laughed and joked—especially the children who somehow brought the freshness and gaiety of their games into that cesspool. I came back from that escapade as groggy as a boxer knocked out in the first round.” The movie’s omission of sanitation has to do with the persistent protests during filming; in an addition to the political rants, many Indians felt that Joffé was robbing residents of their self-respect if all aspects of life in the City of Joy were documented. (Moviegoers will note that Danny Doyle didn’t avoid the realities of dumps in Slumdog Millionaire, and readers of Lapierre will note other elements are missing, like cobras, infestations of rats and bugs, cow dung cakes and the ravages of the heat so intense that the feet of the horses stick to pavements.) So what do we get in the movie version? Instead of endemic cholera, there’s frequent Mafia-administered punches into Max’s stomach and a stab into rickshaw puller Hasari (Om Puri), conveniently suffering from a badly treated case of tuberculosis. When the monsoon floods arrive, instead of numerous bodies, dead rodents, dogs and other animals floating through the streets, there’s Max nearly drowning after saving a leper and his baby. In the book, Max is exasperated (most often by the lack of medical supplies) and though discouraged—periodically heading to one of Calcutta’s grand hotels for a little R&R—he’s faithful to Hippocrates. Movie Max has to be goaded into staying true to his oath. Had Joffé and Medoff condensed the book’s material, they might have provided Patrick Swayze with the role he believes has changed his life. Probably not being disingenuous, he does appear to be working through his own unformulated humanatations and emotional discombobulation. This is what saves him—his deportment, his agog and goggle; he’s at once thrilled and yet disbelieving that he’s experiencing the environs. And something quite appealing about his slightly Oriental face, which, perhaps because he fell ill for three weeks while filming, has finally lost its fatty repellent grubbiness. In Bugle Boys and sun-bleached hair, he’s warm, personable; even the real kids of Anand Nagar swarmed around him. Remember writing in a notebook that he was “affecting” in a dramatic wallop or two, only I can’t remember the moments—they completely evaporated from mind minutes after leaving the theatre. This vanishing is central to Joffé’s muggy, noxious vision; he’s made not a movie about the City of Joy but one about cheap vapors. Om Puri’s Hasari, the salt of Indian earth, is likely an asset, if you don’t tell anybody that you, in irony, damn near lost patience with his mania for honor. Pauline Collins is wasted as an amalgam of the religious characters Joffé thought could be vacated without spiritual loss. Rankling lovers of the rich book and still enraging fair-minded Indians and non-Indian viewers about the movie is that if this is what Joffé really wanted to say regarding the City of Joy, it’s even more insulting to the Indians he placated because it makes so many of them look like the fools he and Medoff made of themselves.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2007 RALPH BENNER (Revised 8/2018) All Rights Reserved.